When it comes to information about food, there is no shortage of information. A trip through a modern grocery store is an adventure in information overload. Even a trip to a farmers’ market will assault your senses with more information then you may really want or can process. The problem is there is no way to filter out the legitimate information from the hogwash. While some food products attempt to present factual information useful to consumers, others simply try and baffle us with BS.
It’s simple: If you increase transparency, you will increase trust. That is the position of the Council for Food Integrity, an industry-funded organization that conducts fair and honest research on consumer attitudes about food. CFI says its latest research proves its point, “This year’s research is the culmination of three years of work on the concept of increasing food system transparency.” According to the CFI data, what most consumers mean when they say transparency is that they want information about 6 areas: food safety, the impact of the food product on health, environmental impact of the product and how it is produced, Labor and human rights, animal wellbeing, and the business ethics of the company whose name is on the package. While consumers say they care about all these things, there are some they care more about than others.
Food safety, what is in a product, and how those ingredients were derived are top of mind for most consumers. According to CFI, this is also the kind of information consumers want on a label. It is the “me” mentality. If it is something that is going to impact me, then I want to know it now. Social and environmental issues are things consumers say they are willing to go to a web site to learn about. CFI says what consumers want on a label includes all ingredients, regardless of quantity; allergens; preservatives; and whether ingredients were derived from GMO seed. Notice that consumers did not indicate they want to know what is NOT in a product.
Yet, that is what more and more information about food is: what is not in a product. A quick trip down any grocery store aisle will reveal labels, signs, and posters that make claims about what something is not. Gluten free, antibiotic free, hormone free, GMO free, peanut free, allergen free, trans fat free, sugar free, MSG free, salt free, meat free: these are things you are likely to encounter. About the only sign you are not likely to see is one that reads “free.”
I consider this kind of information misleading. In many cases, the item that is being proclaimed as being not in a food is either prohibited by law from being there in the first place or could never be in the product anyway — like gluten free water or boneless bananas. The implication is that, by claiming a particular product does not have something in it, the product next to it on the shelf does. This approach also distracts the consumer by getting her to think about what is not in a product rather than what is. A product may shout loudly about having no GMOS, but put in fine print the artificial coloring and flavors it has.
Consumers keep asking for transparency in their food supply, yet all the food and grocery industry does is cloud the shelves with what is not in our food.
By Gary Truitt